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Hillsborough commission’s new faces bring GOP majority

Joshua Wostal, Donna Cameron Cepeda and Michael Owen end 4 years of Democratic control
Hillsborough County commissioners-elect Donna Cameron Cepeda and Joshua Wostal
Hillsborough County commissioners-elect Donna Cameron Cepeda and Joshua Wostal [ Hillsborough Supervisor of Elections/Joshua Wostal ]
Published Nov. 10

Joshua Wostal began Tuesday like he did most everyday for 18 months. Up at 6:30 a.m. Open his UPS store at 7:30 a.m. and work a three-hour shift until the full-time staff arrived.

From 10:30 on he switched his focus to being a Hillsborough County Commission candidate. Since spring 2021, that meant a full calendar of chambers of commerce sessions, community events and civic association gatherings, particularly in east Hillsborough.

Wednesday, the mid-morning shift of duties was more pronounced. His new role is commissioner-elect.

“Lots of surprise. Shock and awe,” he said Wednesday about his upset of incumbent Democratic Commissioner Kimberly Overman in the District 7 countrywide seat.

It wasn’t the only stunner Tuesday. Republican Donna Cameron Cepeda matched his performance and ousted Democrat Mariella Smith from her District 5 countywide seat.

Cepeda and Wostal will join Republican Michael Owen as new commissioners. Owen won a universal primary in August to succeed District 4 Commissioner Stacy White who is leaving due to term limits. Voters on Tuesday also returned 20-year Republican Commissioner Ken Hagan to his District 2 seat.

Michael Owen, a Republican District 4 Hillsborough County Commission candidate, holds a sign promoting his campaign outside the The Palmetto Club at FishHawk Ranch during the primary election on Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2022, in Lithia. His election in the universal primary helps give Republicans a 4-3 majority on the county commission.
Michael Owen, a Republican District 4 Hillsborough County Commission candidate, holds a sign promoting his campaign outside the The Palmetto Club at FishHawk Ranch during the primary election on Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2022, in Lithia. His election in the universal primary helps give Republicans a 4-3 majority on the county commission. [ ANGELICA EDWARDS | Times ]

The results mean Republicans will return to the controlling party on the commission, a position they held for 16 consecutive years until the elections of Smith and Overman in 2018.

Members of both parties credited Gov. Ron DeSantis’ popularity in the county in aiding less-known, down-ballot GOP candidates.

“It was the red tidal wave that came to Hillsborough County and obviously it was the top of the ticket,” said Hillsborough Commissioner Pat Kemp who now will be in the commission’s three-person minority.

Wostal acknowledged riding the coattails of DeSantis’ crushing beat down of former Gov. Charlie Crist.

“Absolutely,” he said. “The number one question I was asked while campaigning in Hillsborough, which is concerning, is “Oh, what is a county commissioner?’ That just shows you that on these down ballot races, most people don’t know how much a county commissioner can impact their local quality of life.”

In a short telephone interview Thursday, Cepeda, an ordained minister, credited God.

“I give all the glory to God and then I just really had a lot of people that really helped me to get the word out. I believe this is what the people want — to stop raising taxes and stop wasting taxpayer money.”

Wostal, 38, lives in the Westchase area of Hillsborough County. He is a 10-year veteran of the U.S. Navy. A native of Texas, he settled in the area after a late-career assignments at MacDill Air Force Base. He owns a UPS store and is a shareholder in another business. His is married and he and his wife, Noelle, have a 7-year-old son, Matthew.

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He previously pointed to the county’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic for motivating his run for office and he admits to being a late-comer to local Republican politics. He said he didn’t become politically active until Hillary Clinton ran for president in 2016.

His campaign platform included opposition to the proposed transportation sales tax referendum. He was in the courtroom to support plaintiff Karen Jaroch in October when Hillsborough County Circuit Court Judge Anne-Leigh Gaylord Moe sided with Jaroch and said the ballot language was misleading. He attended the community meetings on transportation and spoke during public hearings at commission meetings.

But later this month, Wostal moves from observer and commentator to policy-making participant.

“Everybody has their own strengths and weaknesses. Josh Wostal owns a small business. That’s going to be very useful, having that perspective on the board,” said Commissioner Harry Cohen, a Democrat, who narrowly won his own reelection bid Tuesday.

Cepeda isn’t as well known to her new colleagues.

“No. Never at all,” said Kemp when asked if she’d interacted with Cepeda.

“A blank slate,” said Cohen.

Smith said she encountered Cepeda just one time on the campaign trail.

“Everybody was telling me I had it in the bag. Nobody knew my opponent,” Smith said election night after the results were known. “But I ran like I was behind. I ran hard. I have no regrets.”

Cepeda, 59, is originally from South Carolina. She and her husband head the nonprofit Global Life Ministries. Its mission, according to its incorporation records, is to “help those that are hurting, deliverance, feeding the hungry, clothing the poor.”

She pointed a reporter to her campaign web site that said she was a U.S. Army veteran and had worked as a financial analyst for a multibillion-dollar corporation. She did not additional provide details.

The swearing-in ceremony is scheduled for 9 a.m. Nov. 22.

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